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Cover Story - February 2007

Chicago's Blackstone Hotel

Redo Removing Grime from Inn
Famous for 'Smoke-Filled Room'

by Jim Sulski

Off to the side of an otherwise gutted and cavernous ninth floor of the historic Blackstone Hotel on South Michigan Avenue is a solitary hotel suite, its hardwood trim, fireplace and furniture intact.


This is the famous "smoke-filled room," the one where numerous presidents and politicians supposedly plotted and schemed back in the heyday of the Blackstone. The room's political cliché label was applied when Warren G. Harding was picked as the compromise Republican presidential candidate for the 1920 elections.

The preserved suite illustrates the work that has been taking place on the Blackstone since May and will finish up late this year. It's a $112 million job in which developers at some points are gutting the South Michigan Avenue structure and at other places gingerly chipping around its historic pieces.

"The challenge here was to keep the hotel's history but bring the building into the 21st Century," says Brian Hardy, project manager of Chicago-based James McHugh Construction Co., the general contractor.

The nearly century-old 22-story Blackstone is being converted back into a world-class hotel-on a tight 18-month schedule-after sitting dormant for about eight years. When it reopens as part of the Marriott Renaissance chain, it will offer 330 guest rooms, a restored ballroom and lobby, conference and boardrooms, a Michigan Avenue bar and a second-floor restaurant with views of Grant Park.

"It will once again be a diamond," Hardy says.

The property was purchased in 2005 by Denver-based Sage Hospitality Resources, known for rehabbing historic hotels, and reports two years ago say it was listed for $31 million. Chicago's Lucien LaGrange Architects is the designer for the project, and the engineering firm handling the exterior renovation is Chicago-based Wiss, Janney Elstner & Associates.

Refashioning the hotel into modern destination place has presented some problems, says Jared Hoeflich, Sage's project manager for the Blackstone.

For example, a landmark designation by the Commission on Chicago
Landmarks that came in 1998 has meant that numerous aspects of the hotel had to be preserved-ranging from its facade to large sections of its interior.

"We want to be respectful of the space and of the history and the design of the period, but we also want to provide what the market demands," Hoeflich says.

Hence the preservation of the famous smoke-filled room on the ninth floor, which will now be know as the Vice Presidential Suite.

There is also a preserved Presidential Suite on the floor above in which 12 U.S. presidents (from Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter) stayed. It will be restored and updated.

Exterior Work

One of the biggest jobs of the project has been restoring and shoring up the hotel's terra cotta exterior. So that work can progress through the winter months, the building was clad in a blue plastic sheath so that temperatures could be controlled, Hardy says. "That will also us to do the terra cotta work throughout the entire winter," he says.

From the 17th floor up, there was a vast amount of terra cotta work to do, Hardy says. "There was also deterioration of the steel behind it, and there was a lot of strapping to hold it all together," he adds. "We were pulling a lot a brick and terra cotta down, repairing the steel, cleaning the terra cotta and with new pieces, putting it all back on."

Hoeflich says the $9 million exterior job is not typical, "but we were extremely pleased we were able to do the restoration work quickly considering the complexity of the job."

The hotel's mansard roof is also being rebuilt with much work to the substrate below, and new, double-hung fixed windows are being installed on the exterior.

Inside Renovation

The interior renovation's focus has been on the first few floors and basement-known as the public areas-which will be meticulously restored to their original charm.

In the main lobby, McHugh will restore the grand fireplace, mahogany accents and plaster detailing. The Crystal Ballroom, the Art Hall, the English Room and the lower-level barbershop will also be brought back to their former state of grandeur.

There was also a good amount of cannibalizing existing materials to patch and replace, Hardy says. For example, in the hotel's woody English Room-which will now serve as a boardroom-wooden pocket door panels were used to patch wooden wall paneling that had been damaged or removed over the years, he adds.

To ensure they were on track with the restoration efforts, McHugh engineers used a number of sources-from the original 1909 blueprints for the hotel to advice from the Blackstone's maintenance director.

McHugh engineers also wrestled in the interior of the building with the installation of mechanical systems. To install needed ceiling sprinkler systems, workers had to drill down through 19-in.-thick floors.

On the sixth floor, the developers will get around massive trusses that hold up the ceiling of the fifth-floor ballroom by building a workout room around them.

"It will be a workout room with a great view of Grant Park," Hardy says.

New stairs are being added in the building's northwest corner.

The sixth through 23rd floors will feature completely new guest rooms.

Former "back of house" space located under the porthole-accented double-high mansard roof will be used for sweeping luxury suites with lakefront views as well as a concierge service area

Urban Mission

Developers also faced a logistical challenge with the location of the Blackstone at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Balbo Street. For example, demolition was slated as a six-month project, and McHugh wrestled with the amount of debris that had to be removed from the Blackstone.

"We had to close down the alley between Michigan and Wabash and we went to the neighbors first," Hardy says. "We wanted them to be OK with it."

The resurrection of the Blackstone as a luxury hotel is only fitting, its developers say. When the hotel (which was named after Timothy Blackstone, the inaugural president of the Union Stock yards) was built in the early 20th Century, it joined a growing league of luxury hotels in Chicago that included the Palmer House and Hilton Towers. The hotel also has been used in such movies as "The Untouchables," "The Babe" and "The Color of Money."

Even though the Commission on Chicago Landmarks gave the Blackstone the designation of landmark status in 1998, it was closed a year later after city inspectors issued numerous building violations to the hotel's owners.

The hotel sat dormant for a year or so until the building was targeted for a condo conversion project of ex-Beatles spiritual adviser Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Ohio-based Heaven on Earth Inns Corp. planned to turn the Blackstone into a "peace palace." The top end prices, however, scared prospective owners away and the Blackstone languished in the dark for several more years while its exterior began to crumble.

"To see this building slowly come back to life is rewarding," Hoeflich says.

"This is one of the most history-rich hotel properties in the U.S."

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